By Thomas Doherty
The parallel plot — maybe the real plot — percolates just below the surface: the meta-textual challenge of figuring out how the HBO Perry Mason will morph into something resembling its CBS progenitor.
The name Perry Mason may ring a distant gong for a certain generation of TV-weaned baby boomers. Based on the write-by-numbers paperbacks of Erle Stanley Gardner and telecast on CBS from 1957 to 1966, the hour-long courtroom drama was a formative exemplar of the legal fetishism later purveyed by slicker and sleeker attorneys on L.A. Law and Law and Order. For broadcast television in the age of three-network hegemony, a three-act procedural build around an inventive murder, post-mortem inquest, and solemn verdict, paced with rhythmic breaks for commercial interruption, was beat-perfect.
The original Perry Mason starred a lumbering Raymond Burr, an emblematic film noir heavy from the ’50s, as the title defense attorney, a dauntless paladin of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence who exonerated unjustly accused defendants — hapless widows and framed clerks mostly (today they would be gender-fluid minorities and undocumented aliens set up by the White Power Structure and acquitted through DNA evidence). He was aided by his spunky gal Friday, Della Street (Barbara Hale) — the duo worked together without a whiff of romance in the office air — and private investigator Paul Drake (William Hopper), who seemingly had no other clients. Mason’s nemesis — patsy, really — was the born-to-lose district attorney Hamilton Burger (William Talman, another actor with an intertextual backstory as a noir villain), who strutted confidently into court every week only to have his ass handed to him by Perry, usually in the last five minutes of the show when Della or Drake would appear at the back of the courtroom, slip Perry a note with a blockbuster revelation, and the witness on the stand — cornered like a cockroach, pinned under glass by Mason’s relentless cross-examination — would break down and confess (“Yes, I killed him–and I’m glad!”). Sometimes a conscience-stricken spectator in the gallery would stand up and do the blurting out.
Despite a 10-year prime-time run with solid ratings (in 1988, TV encyclopedists Tim Brooks and Earle Marsh called it “television’s most successful and longest running lawyer series”), Perry Mason went in one eye and out the other. Having almost no life in syndication, the show vanished down the video memory hole. With one exception: the gift to public health bequeathed by William Talman. Like many men of his generation, Talman was a heavy cigarette smoker. He contracted lung cancer and in 1968 posthumously released a searing antismoking PSA for the American Cancer Society. “Before I die, I want to do what I can to leave a world free of cancer for my six children,” he rasped.
For HBO’s Perry Mason, which began an eight-episode arc on the pay cable channel on June 21, none of this backstory may seem really necessary. Initially, the show has nothing, like absolutely nothing, to do with the original series (or for that matter its short-lived resurrection, The New Adventures of Perry Mason, telecast on CBS from 1973 to 1974, with Monte Markham in the title role). The reboot, or rebranding, or reimagining, or whatever the marketers call a presold property undergoing a major makeover, steals the names but discards the timeline, characters, and formula of the original. At least until it doesn’t.
As conjured by veteran writer-producers Ron Fitzgerald (Westworld) and Rolin Jones (Boardwalk Empire), the new show backdates the action to 1932 and a Los Angeles milieu that is more James Ellroy than Raymond Chandler, meaning that the sordidness quotient is ratcheted up exponentially. Every institution — the police, the judiciary, the media, the Hollywood studio system — exudes the stench of corruption. We’re basically in Babylon Berlin territory, without the great nightlife and with FDR, not Hitler, waiting in the wings.
Playing Perry Mason is a scruffy Matthew Rhys, beloved as the conflicted deep cover Soviet spy on The Americans. Strangely, he is not a lawyer but a seedy gumshoe of the kind you’ve seen a million times before, a man who walks the mean streets of an existential urban landscape but who is, in Chandler’s famous phrase, not himself mean. Like Jake Gittes in Chinatown, Mason is introduced doing the bottom-feeding work of his profession, a peeping Tom assignment photographing a screen ingenue in flagrante. (I keep wondering how he gets such sharp pictures without a flash in the days before sensitive film stock.) Mason is a nasty drunk, an absentee father, and a post-traumatically stressed veteran tormented by flashbacks to the meat grinder of the Great War. In a departure from the usual PI lifestyle, Mason lives on a dairy farm, where he shovels metaphorical manure in the barn, next to a landing strip owned by a voluptuous Latina aviatrix (Veronica Falcón), a friend with benefits.
Mason is in the employ of an old-school, once high-powered lawyer on the downward slope, E.B. Jonathan (a harrumphing John Lithgow). E.B.’s Della Street (Juliet Rylance) is not merely his Gal Friday but his Gal Friday through Thursday; she runs the law office with military precision. Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is now a Black policeman who, you will not be surprised to learn, is smarter and more observant than the clueless white detectives who supervise and condescend to him. Sometimes the screenwriters assume the audience is just as clueless. “I find it offensive that you chose to mask your intelligence and decency with cynicism and slothfulness,” Della tells Perry, for the benefit of anyone who has never been exposed to the hard-boiled detective trope.
For the record, the convoluted plot involves a horrible kidnapping: an ordinary (seeming) couple, Matthew (Nate Corddry) and Emily Dodson (Gayle Rankin) — he a Babbitt husband, she a dishrag hausfrau — pay $100,000 for the safe return of their kidnapped baby, the fee ponied up by the rich father, Herman Baggerly (Robert Patrick), of Matthew, the illegitimate son he sired before reforming his wastrel ways. The ransom is paid but the baby is returned dead and cruelly mutilated: the infant’s eyelids are sewn open.
Mixed up in all this in a way that will surely be revealed by episode 8 is the platinum-blond evangelist Sister Alice (thespian chameleon Tatiana Maslany) of the Radiant Assembly of God. Sister Alice, of course, is modeled on Aimee Semple McPherson, the Jazz Age revivalist who first harnessed the radio medium for collection-plate profit. If the Bible-thumping antics and gaudy showbiz pageants mounted by Sister Alice look over the top, they are not: McPherson’s mix of That Old Time Religion and Busby Berkeley was the hottest ticket in town, and not just for the faithful. (In 1930, when the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein came to Hollywood to work for Paramount Pictures, a visit to Sister Aimee’s Angelus Temple in Los Angeles was the first stop on his itinerary). Maslany, who inhabited dozens of different cloned personalities on Orphan Black (BBC America, 2013-2017) must be bored playing a single character, but she keeps you guessing as to whether Sister Alice is a charlatan or true believer.
The time shift to 1932 forces a heavy reliance on digital backdrops that give the exterior scenes a murky and computer-generated look; on the other hand, the material-world period costuming, furniture, and especially the cherry automobiles all look too pristine for convincing verisimilitude. The world of Perry Mason registers as a semialternative universe that invites history buffs to play connect the dots (Sister Alice for Sister Aimee, the kidnapped Dodson baby for the kidnapped Lindbergh baby), while alternately appreciating the authentic vernacular dropped into the dialogue (Mason was mustered out of the Army on a “blue ticket”– a dishonorable discharge) and frowning at the verbal anachronisms (no one said “career-killer” in the ’30s). Of course, being mired in the past, Mason needs to make do with the predigital tricks of the PI trade: when he needs a phone number, he can’t just hit star-69 on the touchtone; he has to leap into the phone booth, dial up the operator, and sweet talk her into coughing up the number.
The other time shift is cultural. The depiction of race and gender in 1932 accords with the 2020 playbook: the people we are meant to hate reflect the normative (racist and sexist) attitudes of their time and the people we are meant to like reflect the normative (and so enlightened) attitudes of our time. Thus, Della is now a lesbian, which explains a lot actually.
Meanwhile, the parallel plot — maybe the real plot — percolates just below the surface: the meta-textual challenge of figuring out how the HBO Perry Mason will morph into something resembling its CBS progenitor. No spoilers here, but with some cute sleight of hand that will annoy anyone who has ever taken the California Bar Exam, the series executes a realignment that HBO deemed promising enough to grant the show renewal for a second season.
And the kidnapping plot? Inevitably, the cynical shamus gets religion, not of the Sister Alice sort but of the kind that is his occupational hazard and our generic addiction: the mystery needs to be solved and retribution meted out, extralegally, if need be. No matter how many threats he receives and beatings he suffers (and this guy gets beat up more than Wile E. Coyote), the compulsive quest for closure will drive him, and us, forward, week to week. “This one’s really got its hooks in me,” Mason admits midway through an investigation that is no longer just a job of work, that will indeed change his job of work. Though Perry Mason may not hook you quite as tenaciously, most viewers will be in for the duration, even if the wrap-up will not be as clean nor the closure as satisfying as when the original Perry Mason tied up all the loose ends and we could all be assured that justice would be done in an America courtroom.
Thomas Doherty is a professor of American studies at Brandeis University and the author of Little Lindy Is Kidnapped: How the Media Covered the Crime of the Century, due out from Columbia University Press this fall.